Being Measured

I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement.   My body tingled with anticipation.   But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against.  I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall.  “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.

I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.

My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.

I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way.  With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before.  Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure.   “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.”  Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move.  I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot.  Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.

Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot.  “2.”  The second foot.  The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot.  But I already knew I was more than three feet tall.  I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall.  “37,” “38,” “39.”

Anyway, I was good at math.  I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal.  As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties.  It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by.  “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.”  It slowed to a crawl.  “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.”  Almost there. “47 3/4.”  Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt.  The tape measure had stopped.  The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.

I had failed to become four feet tall.

Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen.  My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.

I was disappointed, but all was not lost.  I’d been through this before.  I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one.  What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.

I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books.  There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine.  I did not know what those words meant.  But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph.  The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height.  At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”

I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday.  Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height.  The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.

Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper.  Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them.  Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy.  Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.”  Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.

There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line.  They were for my oldest brother.  He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm.  My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.

Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row.  Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.

My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table.  He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.”  Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines.  Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.

One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th.  I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up.  What was wrong with me?

 

 

To Those Opposing the NFL Players’ Protests

This picture is of Kansas City Chiefs star linebacker Justin Houston.  While the national anthem played before his team’s game, he turned to face his fans, and kneeled.

I doubt anyone who thinks differently will even see this, or be swayed by it, and others with a bigger platform have already made these and other points more eloquently or forcefully.  But I still want to make three points about the NFL player protests that I wish those opposing them would really consider seriously.

1) Please stop crowing that “spoiled, millionaire players should stop protesting.”

They are not protesting because they feel themselves to be personally or individually oppressed necessarily (though some of them probably have been at one point or another). They are protesting in solidarity with, and to amplify the voices of, many others who have been oppressed, and have been protesting, but whose names we won’t know because they aren’t celebrities and we as a country stupidly only get hyped up when celebrities do or say shit.

2) Please stop characterizing it as a protest against the flag or the national anthem.

It is a protest against structural racism and police violence exercised disproportionately against people of color, both of which are counter to what are supposed to be the ideals and values of the country; ideals and values that the anthem and the flag symbolize. The protest means something like: “hold up, y’all, before we stand up and congratulate ourselves for how awesome we are at our values, let’s take a knee to remember those suffering for our shortcomings; let’s call our country to do better, to come closer to realizing those ideals of freedom and equality for all.”

3) Please stop saying “stick to sports” or that “sports should not be political.”

Sorry, but that is a counter-factual delusion. Sports are now and have always been political: political decisions finance arenas and stadiums with public dollars or tax breaks, political decisions determine who gets to play and who doesn’t, political decisions confer anti-trust law exemptions on teams, leagues, and organizations. All that is happening now (which has also happened in the past) is that athletes, mostly of color, are participating openly in this political process. If you didn’t insist that sports and politics be separate when your city council voted to finance a new stadium, or your state legislature and governor passed a law declaring that athletes at public universities are not employees and may not unionize, I don’t think insisting on the separation of sports and politics now is a very good look.

If you really understand these things, and still believe they should just shut up, stand up, and play football, then we have very fundamentally different views of how to be in the world. I can live and let live to a point, and I think I’m generally a pretty conciliatory guy. But in this case, your views are actually in the way of the freedom and equality I want for everyone. So I have a problem with your views.

D3 Life: Funding

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed in my new job teaching sports studies out of the English Department at Oberlin College. I’ve also agreed to serve on the General Faculty Athletics Committee and as a Faculty Athletics Representative.While there are some similarities between my experiences at Michigan and Oberlin, the differences are far more striking.  The whole Oberlin campus would probably come close to fitting inside Michigan’s football stadium, and would easily rest within the general complex of which the famed Big House is a part.  Last Saturday I went to Oberlin’s season opening football game, along with 430 other people, including our new President, who stood in the stands among students and colleagues, as the players, whom you would never recognize as such off the season because they are the same size as you or me, slogged through a downpour to their first win since 2015.  This is the beginning of my D3 life.  And I want occasionally to post here some snapshots of that experience.

Besides my paid duties, I’ve also agreed to serve as a volunteer on the coaching staff for the men’s basketball team. I haven’t coached in decades, but I always loved it and I’m very excited to be part of it. So far I’ve just been part of a few meetings, some with the players and some with just the other coaches.  But, among other things, I’ve already been impressed by how much work this underpaid D3 staff does behind the scenes to create a positive experience for the athletes. My colleagues have used their time with the players thus far to emphasize the importance of off court behaviors and habits that will help these young people develop into responsible, caring teammates, students, and members of their community.

These coaches will never be pulling in even 1/10th or 1/50th of the salaries of their D1 counterparts. They have no contracts with Nike or Amex or even local used car dealerships, and they never will. Coaching at Oberlin College probably isn’t the ideal stepping stone if what you’re after is a plum D1 coaching job. They have a contract with Nike: it gets them a discount on their uniforms.  You’ll never know their players names or see them on TV. Their locker room isn’t paneled in expensive wood, their lockers are not personalized.  It is smaller and in worse condition than the one I used at my small Catholic high school in the early 1980s.  Like we did, the players buy their own shoes. They travel to road games in tiny Midwestern towns in beat up vans.  They carve time to improve their game out of schedules already crammed with demanding academic courses of study, social justice work, and other extra curricular activities on campus and in town.  And they play their games in a gym that would be small at many high schools, before not thousands, nor even hundreds, but dozens of fans. But if you watched the game on the floor, and saw the sweat on their faces, you wouldn’t know these things. So far, it appears to me, all involved invest their time and energy because they love to do it despite the fact that the market, in its infinite blindness, has determined that the efforts of my colleagues and students are of zero value. I am inspired by this demonstration of unvalued passion.

That said, it takes money to keep these programs afloat, more money than the institution can afford to invest in them.  After all, unvalued passion doesn’t fill gas tanks, or replace broken equipment.

So, in a throwback to my Catholic school upbringing, we are holding a raffle to help raise money for the team.  I know that there are larger and more urgent needs around the world these days and that everybody’s resources are scarce and in high demand.  But please consider purchasing a raffle ticket and (or) please share this with others you know who you believe may be willing and able to do so.

For $20 you have a chance at winning the $500 grand prize, or one of two $250 prizes.  But it’s not about the prizes. Your $20 will help defray the costs of travel, upkeep of facilities, and equipment for the team.  But most of all,  for $20 you can have the satisfaction of knowing you are contributing to the survival of sport at a level where it truly embodies the best things that sport can provide our young people. You can click on this link to buy one. 

Thanks for helping to support the D3 life.

 

 

Hail. No.

The shoes are pretty sick, but I literally would not wear them even if Nike paid me to.

I’m not even going to show a picture.

Because the shoes are fucking sick.  I have seen and heard (and smelled) a lot in the years that I have been scouring the colon of big time athletics at Michigan.  But this is some next level shit.

According to the websites Nice Kicks and Sneakernews, Nike’s Jordan Brand previewed a new sneaker model: the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE.  Rapper DJ Khaled—who last fall emceed the Ann Arbor event at which Nike first unveiled the Michigan athletic apparel it had created as part of its $173.8 million deal with the University—posted photos and videos of the shoes on his Instagram account over the past weekend.

I wasn’t in any of the meetings that led to the appearance of this new thing in the world. So I can’t say with certainty whether it is stupidity, greed, irresponsibility, hypocrisy, cynicism, or merely irony that’s being manifested here, but I suspect a combination was at work.

The so-called “Block M,” which appears on the front of the tongue of the new sneakers is a federally registered trademark, which means that any use of the logo on merchandise sold for profit requires approval from the University’s Trademark Licensing office.

Apart from some generalities available to the general public, I don’t know what legal stipulations govern the relationship between the University and Nike. But I assume that the main thing that Nike got for its 174 million dollars was the right to use the block M on merchandise sold for profit. I doubt anyone at Michigan ever saw—let alone signed off on—this shoe before it hit the internet this weekend. But I still hold the University partially responsible for selling its soul—(soul, brand, whatever)—to the highest bidder.

I know, that’s obvious.  It’s how college licensing works.  Universities sell the rights to use their name and brand logos to commercial entities. According to the Collegiate Licensing Company, “the retail marketplace for college-licensed merchandise in 2013 was estimated at $4.59 billion” and Michigan ranked third behind the University of Texas and the University of Alabama in sales that year.

Along with the money generated by ticket sales, commercial sponsorships, and television contracts, the revenues generated by these licensing deals are why so many of us consider college athletes, whose compensation is limited to aid covering cost of attendance, to be economically exploited laborers.

That is why as a general rule I don’t buy Michigan athletic apparel. It is not that I don’t support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes.  It is that I do support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes, and so I refuse to be complicit with this aspect of their exploitation. And yes, I’m aware that is an arbitrary line to draw and that it has pretty much no effect on the system as a whole.  But it at least lets me look my students in the eye.

But if all that’s just basic Big Time College Sports 101, then the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE kicks are, as I say, next level, advanced graduate seminar, shit. To understand why, consider this.

In 1990-1991, the year before the five freshman who would come to be known as the Fab Five arrived on the UM campus, the University took in $2 million in merchandising revenues.  In 1992-1993, after their sophomore year, that number had jumped more than 500 %, to $10.5 million, fueled by the extraordinary popularity of the styles pioneered by the five talented and successful young black men. Meanwhile, Nike and the University of Michigan were at the time pioneering what would become the standard relationship between large apparel manufacturers and universities in this country.

On November 7, 2002, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced that Michigan would be imposing sanctions on its own athletic program as a result of NCAA violations involving a handful of players during the 1990s, among them Chris Webber of the so-called Fab Five. The sanctions included vacating the basketball team’s two Final Four games from the 1991-1992 season, and every game of the 1992-1993 season.  As a result, the banners commemorating the team’s appearance in the Final Four in both those seasons would be removed from the rafters of Crisler Arena.

In 2012, nearly ten years later, in response to a question from a student of mine during a fireside chat, President Coleman reiterated her position that the self-imposed sanctions were proper and should remain in effect. She said that what happened was not good and was a source of shame for the University.

 

To this day, despite increasing calls from University faculty, candidates for the Board of Regents, and alumni, the University still does not officially recognize the on-court accomplishments or off-court impact of the five players and their teammates.  According to the University, those teams won no games stretching from the end of the 1991-1992 seasons through the whole of the 1992-1993 season.  Though these “facts” were the result of the University’s own policy decisions, unilaterally reversing these decisions and reinstating the banners, University administrators appear to feel, could jeopardize the University’s relationship with some wealthy alumni and with the NCAA.

In other words, according to the University, the so-called Fab Five were literally not victors.  And yet, on the opposite side from the black Block M on the tongue the new Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE sneakers is the word “Victors,” a reference the school’s fight song: “Hail to the Victors.” The five, it seems, as ever, may be considered Victors for the purposes of generating revenue, but not for the purposes of acknowledging the reality of the institution’s history.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it matters much that this shoe is designed as a limited edition and not for retail.  Both Nike and the University, I feel confident, will still profit indirectly from the manufacture of this shoe, if only through the free publicity for both that is generated by having celebrities like DJ Khaled post images of the shoe to their social media accounts.

I’m disgusted that the University should at one and the same time refuse publicly to celebrate the legacy of the teams and take in revenue associated with the manufacture of a product that celebrates and trades on that legacy.

But here is perhaps the most cynically and shamelessly exploitative aspect of the whole deal. The heel of the shoe features a black hand, index and middle finger crossed in a sign the young players made famous 25 years ago as emblematizing the nickname they’d chosen for themselves: 5X (pronounced “five times.”).

In a recent (unpaid) visit to a class I teach on sports culture at Michigan, team member Jimmy King explained the tension between the two nicknames to a student who was born after Jimmy and his teammates set basketball culture at Michigan and across the nation on fire:

The ‘Fab Five’ was totally the media. That wasn’t us. Doesn’t that sound corny, ‘Fab Five’? That’s corny. Who would give yourself the name ‘Fab Five’? How corny is that? So you know, what we did was come up with our own name, which was ‘Five Times’ or “Five Times One’ and the reason why we came up with that name is because the five of us would come together as basically one group or one ultimate player, kinda like Voltron—if you remember that show, where the five pieces come together and you become this one giant entity. So that was the idea behind the name of ‘Five Times.’ And also it was the number ‘5’ with the letter ‘X’ and the number ‘1’ and the ‘X’ because of a play on Malcolm X with the ‘no identity’ having given ourselves our own name and not being branded by the media.

Jimmy was explaining that they sought, in effect, to elude the latest in a centuries-old tradition in this country of naming (or renaming) black men and, conversely, to take their place in a proud tradition of black men choosing their own names and in the process telling their own stories, authoring the course of their own lives.

Original art work, created for a class project by my student Peter Mascheroni.

So with this new sneaker, Nike and, by association, the University of Michigan have managed to turn a name and symbol the players devised to defy their commercial exploitation into a commodity that will enrich everyone involved except the young men who created it.

According to Steve Busch, Brand Manager at the University, in determining when to approve of the use of the Block M for commercial purposes, the University stays “away from things that we would call the ‘sin items’: We don’t do anything affiliated with items like alcohol, tobacco, drugs or pornography.”

We stay away from “sin items,” but that apparently does not include exploiting the creative talent and cultural impact of five young black men while simultaneously disavowing them.

This should shock us. But I’m afraid it won’t shock very many people.  I understand why.  But I also think that only further underlines the importance of calling this shit out and revealing it for the strange, unnatural, harmful, and anti-educational practice that it is.

For sports fans, like me, and even educators (also like me), finding a clean path through the thicket of moral entanglements in college sports is more than tricky. It is impossible. You follow college sports, like me, you’re dirty.  It’s that simple.  Of course, if you use an Apple product, you’re also dirty, and so on.  But the impossibility of perfect cleanliness shouldn’t, I think, prevent us from doing the murky good we can.

And nobody associated with the University of Michigan should be cool that the University profits off the labor of students—especially students of color—it officially pretends did not exist.

So even though I feel the shoes are sick, I won’t wear them.  I wouldn’t wear them if Nike paid me to.  Of course, if Nike or UM were to pay Ray, Jimmy, Jalen, Juwan, and Chris? Well, that would be, precisely, a different story.

Happy International Workers Day.

 

 

Why Fab 5 at 25?

This is the text of my opening remarks for the Fab 5 @ 25 round table symposium.  The University video taped the event and will be making that available to the public, hopefully before too long.

screenshot-2016-10-10-06-44-48The impact of the Fab Five on basketball and our cultural landscape was immeasurable.  As we’ve just heard it was felt even by a young Hoosier attending a small liberal arts college who would grow up to become a quantitative political scientist and our Dean.  He was not alone, of course. Their superb and electrifying play, their exuberant and authentic self-expression, and their courageous outspokenness transformed not only college basketball, but, in some ways, all of sport, and sparked challenging and increasingly urgent conversations about race, money, and education in big time college sports.  But you know all that.  You know, too, that their legacy was left in limbo as a result of investigations uncovering the loans that one member of the team accepted.

We are here, as Dean Martin explained, to address these topics openly, in an academic setting, in keeping with the mission, and best traditions, of the great community of students and scholars that comprise the University of Michigan.  We have here an opportunity to lead by continuing and deepening the challenging and urgent conversations these players and their teammates helped amplify:  how can universities like Michigan preserve their educational mission and safeguard the well-being of their students in the context of the rapidly expanding commercialization of college sports? What sort of opportunities do college sports provide us for addressing and overcoming social inequalities and cultural stereotypes? What is the legacy of the Fab Five in Michigan’s own history, and what is the most appropriate way for the University to mark that legacy?

But, even as we take up these questions today, I know from experience that our event offers another, deeper opportunity for all of us.  I met Jimmy King in March of 2012, when he accepted my invitation to speak to students in my undergraduate Cultures of Basketball class.  He has come every time I’ve taught the course since then and has even played in the intra class 3 on 3 tournament the students organize at the end of each semester.  Now, I pride myself on being an effective teacher. But I know they feel that the hour and a half they spend with Jimmy is the unforgettable highlight of the semester and that the challenging and inspiring lessons he imparts will stay with them forever.

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I understand why they feel that way.  I feel that way too.  It’s because Jimmy is, among many other things, a superb teacher.  In fact, though I don’t know Ray as well, nor Jalen or Juwan at all, I believe that all four of these men are, and were when they were students here, superb teachers. In fact, I view them as one of the University great treasures: a trove of unique life experiences which they transform into accessible lessons. These are lessons not only about basketball, or college sports.  Not even only about race or class or exploitation.  They are deeper life lessons about joy, creativity, and integrity, about solidarity, trust, and loyalty and, perhaps above all, about freedom.  We should consider ourselves fortunate that we have here today something life doesn’t often provide: a second chance; a second chance not only to hear their voices, but to listen to them and so to learn what we may have missed when they first offered it 25 years ago. I for one, plan to make the most of it.

As the fellas used to say before stepping into the arena: let ‘em hang.

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5 for the Fab 5 @ 25

The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago.  The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond.  In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA.  The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.

Until now.

The Fab Five are returning to campus on at 2 pm, October 8th to discuss their experiences in Hill Auditorium.

In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.

1.“Free the Banners, Free Discussion” – (2013)
Op-Ed piece I wrote for The Michigan Daily in which I called for the kind of public discussion we will finally be holding this Saturday.
2.“Uphold the Heart” – (2012)
A reflection on Jimmy King’s first visit to my Cultures of Basketball course, and on the impact of the Fab Five.
3.“Where is 1968?” – (2013)
On some of the lessons about race and social activism we can draw from the Fab Five. Never more urgent than now.
4.“Alphabet Soup” – (2013)
On hype, names, and numbers.
5. “_______________” – (2013)

Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.

I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates.  Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.

But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past.  And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past.  I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.

There has been enough erasure and denial.

“An Open Letter to Chris Webber”

Disbelieveland

Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.

 

* * *

Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game.  Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.

Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.”  That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.”  The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.

Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory.  All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.

So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).

Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %.  Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.

In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?

The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7)  We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead.  What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?

Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.

But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.

Here’s the thing:  I still didn’t believe it happened.  I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”

* * *

So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.

But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that  despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.

But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.

That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win.  Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.

After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:

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I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.

* * *

But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free.  You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.

But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me.  They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.

Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.

But here’s the thing.  The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening.  They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.

I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.

The Culture of Moving Dots

Here is a video of “The Culture of Moving Dots: Toward a History of Counting and of What Counts in Basketball,” a public presentation I gave last week at a workshop on “Doing Sport History in the Digital Present.” The workshop was sponsored by the North American Society for Sport History and the Georgia Tech Sport, Society, and Technology Program. A few people who couldn’t be there had asked if I could make it available.

The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History.  But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball that I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.

Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it.  So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.

The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Integrating Academics and Athletics in the American College and University

Last week I spoke at Oberlin College, where the Athletics Department had invited me to share some of my ideas on this topic.

The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.

And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.

(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).

I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique).  And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.

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Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.

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Time Demands Comparison DI vs. DIII

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